Creating Your Future (Leslie Becknell)

So you heard the topic today had something to do with creativity and you might have thought to yourself, oh no, this wouldn’t apply to me. I’m not an artist. I’m not one of the artistic elite. I don’t smoke cigarettes and wear black. Very few of us would identify ourselves as artists.

Gordon MacKenzie was an artist and creative manager at Hallmark who was committed to helping everyone get in touch with the artist within. He would often speak to various audiences including school children. With the kids, he would always open by introducing himself, telling the kids he was an artist and how he noticed a lot of art around the school and he wondered who were the artists that had made the art. So he would ask “How many artists are there in the room? Would you please raise your hands?”

The pattern of responses was always the same:

In first grade en mass the children leapt from their chairs, arms waving wildly, eager hands trying to reach the ceiling. Every child was an artist.

In second grade about half the kids raised their hands shoulder high, no higher. The raised hands were still.

In third grade at best, about 10 kids out of 30 would raise hand. Tentatively, self consciously.

And so on up through the grades. By the time he reached 6th grade no more than one or two would raise their hands, and they did it ever so slightly, guardedly, their eyes glancing from side to side uneasily, betraying a fear of being identified as a “closet artist.”

Gordon believed that each of us is a creative genius, an artist. As children we knew this, but when we looked to some authority figure for validation, we usually didn’t get it because creative genius challenges authority.

But now we’re grown ups. So we can be our own authority figures and redeem that creative genius that was put to sleep as we were being tamed and molded to succeed in society.

Like Gordon, I believe that we are all creative. We all have that impulse inside us, seeking some sort of expression. Many of us have lost touch with those creative impulses. Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, believes that much of the neurosis in our culture are merely a matter of blocked creativity. That we are now a stifled culture looking to express ourselves.

Many of us carry around the image that the only place to express our creativity is through the arts, but I believe that our lives offer a myriad of possibilities to express our creativity.

One place is in our work, whatever kind of work we do ? painter, writer, sales rep, activist, teacher, research analyst, parent ? any arena offers us countless opportunities to be creative.

Robert Frost said “The brain is a wonderful organ; it starts working the moment you get up in the morning and doesn’t stop until you get to work.” I think we have a chance to be more fulfilled and contribute more meaningfully if we bring our whole selves to work ? not just our brain but our heart and soul as well.

William Miller in his book, Flash of Brilliance, challenges us to think about many of the great hero’s journeys about which we read or hear stories, and find a pattern that we could apply to our own work.

In various heroic stories the hero generally faces the following:

  • You’re on a quest and you come to an impassable river (or some other obstacle) guarded by a demon
  • Your instructions are clear: withdraw to gather strength ? identify with a power (the divine) so its energies merge into you, then call forth the demon and confront your fear.
  • Do battle until you are victorious in defeating, befriending, or taming the demon
  • Engage the subdued or tamed demon as an ally to get you across the river
  • On the other side, review with gratitude what you’ve gained to assist you on the next stage of your journey.

What if we to see our next challenge at work as our heroic quest and whatever barriers we encounter as the river guarded by the demon? We establish the goals of our journey and then assess the various risks. When confronted with whatever “demon” our organization, competitors, politicians or the market might throw at us, we take time to withdraw and focus, tapping into our own character and larger wisdom while we analyze the issues. This is a key step that we often overlook. By connecting with our character and spiritual values, we find the inner strength to act with faith and courage.

We are then ready to do battle, tapping into the power of our creativity to generate many compelling options. By using our creativity and suspending judgment, we can generate new ideas that will allow an original and powerful solution to emerge. After overcoming the demon with this solution, we proceed to implement the change and celebrate and acknowledge our success.

David Whyte is a poet who is now an active consultant to companies advising them about how to deal with change and creativity. He was reluctant to pursue this work initially with his vision of corporations as faceless, conformist hierarchies busily destroying the world with employees doomed to lives of ineffable blandness. He has come to see instead the power of the resources in the hands of corporations and the desperation of many who work in these environs. He hopes that his work will help to ground the corporation in the larger human community and inspire employees to bring the richness of their whole selves to work.

Fire of creativity

When Whyte advises corporations on tapping into creativity, he talks about the conflicting energy of fire and ice. Fire represents the “not only the heat of creation but the dance of energy that devours and sublimates the outworn.” So while we feel called to warm ourselves with this fire of creativity, we are also fearful of being burned. The organizations that we are a part of also need this creativity and this cleansing energy to seek new ideas, new work processes, new products. However the ice comes in because in and out of work, many of us seem more frozen by fear than burning with creative expression. Many of us are afraid that we might be burned by failure as we expose ourselves in the bright light through creative action.

Fear

As we take those first steps,

  • maybe picking up a pen to start writing a novel or a memo about our new idea,
  • maybe stepping into the art supply store to purchase charcoal pencils and a sketch pad,
  • maybe sending off for the application to seminary,
  • calling the piano teacher to schedule the first lesson or
  • walking into the principal’s office with a new scheme for parent/teacher conferences,

we are bound to be confronted with fear. We can almost hear the universe holding its breath, watching to see if we’ll go through with it. We feel the heat of the fire and often step back, realizing that there is promise of a new life but the very real possibility of burning up most of our present life to achieve it. We want someone or something to reassure us that it will all be okay.

In David Whyte’s experience, the more we are true to our own creative gifts, the less there is any outer reassurance or help at the beginning. And without reassurances, many of us pull back and work on new forms of invisibility. As Garry Trudeau, author of Doonesbury, put it, “I am trying to cultivate a life-style that does not require my presence.” How many of us have successfully done this? We let our mind project all of the possible negative outcomes and based on these frightening possibilities, retreat into safety.

But our soul longs to move forward. Our soul is not fearful of the difficulties of the journey because it can see the richness of the journey itself, the beauty of the possible failure.

David Whyte wrote a poem about a harrowing experience he had kayaking in a storm where he experienced breaking through the terror into an experience of pure vitality. The poem called Out on the Ocean follows:

the blades flash

lifting veils of spray as the bow rears

terrified then falls

with five miles to go

of open ocean

the eyes pierce the horizon

the kayak pulls round

like a pony held by unseen reins

shying out of the ocean

and the spark behind fear

recognized as life

leaps into flame

always this energy smolders inside

when it remains unlit

the body fills with dense smoke.

As we hear the last two verses, we see the potential of unleashing the flame

and the spark behind fear

recognized as life

leaps into flame

and the consequences of letting it smolder.

always this energy smolders inside

when it remains unlit

the body fills with dense smoke.

Within each of us lies a creative vitality that smolders inside whether it has an outlet or not. When it remains trapped inside without expression, “the body fills with dense smoke.” The interior then becomes numbed and choked by the smoke and we are overcome by toxic components like resentment, blame, complaint, self-justification, sluggishness. I can think of many environments that I’ve worked in or been a volunteer in that have been filled with people haunted by this toxicity of unexpressed creativity.

I feel it in myself as I look around for someone to blame for why I haven’t created the adult RE classes I’ve envisioned. As I use the house payment or the fact that work isn’t so bad as justification for why I haven’t stepped out on a path of my true calling. As I use the excuse that no one would understand to justify why I don’t speak my truth at work. As I complain about another day at the office, another day in pantyhose.

Weeping Woman and Polluted River

David Whyte talks about the toxicity of the smoke. Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Jungian analyst and author of the rich book, Women Who Run with the Wolves, talks about pollution in our clear river of creativity. She likens our creativity to a flow of water that “rises, rolls, surges, and spills into us.” So we can’t lose our creativity because it’s always there ready to flow unless we block it or somehow pollute the stream of creativity.

Estes shares a story that is found in many cultures over hundreds of years. It is a tale of a river of life that becomes a river of death.

The story as Estes tells it emanates from Latin America goes:

The Weeping Woman

A rich hidalgo, nobleman courts a beautiful but poor woman and wins her affections. She bears him 2 sons but he decides not to marry her. One day he announces that he is returning to Spain, where he will marry a rich woman chosen by his family, and that he will take his sons with him.

The young woman goes crazy upon hearing this news and claws at his face and at her own, screaming and ranting. She grabs her two young sons and runs to the river with them where she throws them into the torrent. Her children drown and she falls to the riverbank in tears of grief and dies from her sadness.

When she arrives in heaven, St Peter tells her that she may enter heaven for she is a good woman but not until she recovers the souls of her children from the river. And that is why it is said today that the weeping woman sweeps the riverbanks with her long hair, puts her long stick fingers into the water to drag the bottom for her children. And why parents warn their children not to go near the river at night for she might mistake them for her own children and take them away forever.

This story is told in many ways and one modern version of the story changes the reason that she killed her children. The rich man becomes a factory owner whose factories poison the river with toxic waste. The woman drinks from the river while pregnant with twins, so that they are born blind with webbed fingers. The rich man wants nothing to do with the deformed babies or their mother. She throws the babies to the river so that they don’t have to face the difficult life ahead of them and then dies herself from grief. St Peter still demands that she find the souls of her children before entering heaven so she looks and looks in the river for them, but she can hardly see because the water is so dirty and dark. Her ghost haunts the river and you can hear her calling for her children late at night.

Meaning in the story

This sounds like a ghost story that you might hear around a fire on a camping trip especially if you’ve pitched your tent near a river, but the shiver it might produce in you is more than a shiver of fear. It’s a shiver of awareness, of recognition that might lead to greater contemplation about the story and its message.

The theme of the story is the destruction of the fertile feminine, destruction of the creative flow. The beautiful woman and a pure river of life represent the creative process in a normal, healthy state. If we do not tend to the health of the river, then the creative flow can become blocked or polluted. We ourselves can feel like a dying river becoming thick and slow in a negative way, tired with no energy. We might feel like we can’t think of anything new. There’s no new life being fed by a healthy river. We can stagnate and find ourselves distracted by fear of failure, too much work, too much play, even by love affairs.

We can pour a variety of pollutants into our rivers.

We tell ourselves that we’ll give the soul-self time to create sometime off in the foggy future, when we take those days off, when such and such project is finished. This polluting promise won’t ever be kept, it’s just a way of suffocating the creative impulse.

Or an inner voice might tell you only if you have a doctorate will anyone take you seriously, only if you get published in XYZ magazine will it matter, only if you receive some certain reward, only if, only if. The only ifs will block you to never get started.

We can also find a way to make any creative impulse “illogical” and therefore not worth pursuing. Of course this poison never acknowledges that creativity rarely emanates from the world of logic but from a different intuitive space.

Sometimes we think we’re adding nutrients to our river by taking a workshop here or dropping a little reading time there. But without substance and support these morsels can’t nourish the river. They just blind us to the actual deteriorated state of our creative flow.

We also let others? poisons seep into the river. Those who don’t understand or respect our creative process. Someone who shatters our delicate beginning work with harsh criticism. Someone who doesn’t recognize the need for time and space in which to create and steps in to fill it up with their demands.

A powerful toxin is our own addiction to responsibility and respectability. We have so many things we “should” be doing that we don’t leave time for creative rests. We don’t leave room for God as our opening poem reminded us to do. “Turn off the phone. Stop talking – Recycle the newspaper without reading it -Say no. Don’t smile. Notice the interval between breaths – Leave the stage bare so that God may enter.”

If we leave room for God, for inspiration, for inner wisdom, then when we act we’ll be coming from a much different place. If we work from a sense of obligation, “I should”, then we’re often resentful, tired and ineffective. If we act from inspiration, we can be joyful, successful and filled with energy and vitality.

So one way to start cleansing your river is to find some quiet space and time. Julia Cameron advises spending time every morning to write three pages of longhand writing. With no agenda or purpose. Just give yourself that time to clear your mind and let your thoughts, be they banal or profound, flow onto the page.

Take time to explore your creativity and protect that time. A painter who lives in the Rocky Mountains has chain that she uses to block the road to her house. Not only does she put up the chain when she’s working but she places a sign upon it that reads, “I am working today and not receiving visitors. I know you think this doesn’t mean you because you are my banker, agent, or best friend. But it does.”

I personally can’t imagine doing this because I somehow have the idea that other people are more important than me and are certainly more important than whatever creative exploration I might choose to play around in. But we have to give ourselves credit for the importance of this work. And make room for it. And keep making room for it. I’m one of those that will feed my soul a little morsel every now and then ? a workshop or a day in the park which generally gets whittled down to an hour or two in the park after I finish this errand and that phone call.

Estes advises us to put our foot down and claim “I love my creative life more than I love cooperating with my own oppression.” She wants us to find a balance between pedestrian responsibility and personal rapture. Protect our souls. Insist on a quality creative life.

Beginners

If we can rid our river of pollutants and allow the clear flow of creativity to flow; if we could make room for the creative energy that “smolders inside” and allow “the spark behind fear” to “leap into flame,” then we could achieve new levels of self expression.

When we feel the fear, instead of reading that as a message to step back, we could instead see it as an invitation to move forward, an indication that we are on the right path, that there is a spark behind the fear that can leap into flame.

Pablo Neruda, Nobel prize winning poet, wrote a poem in which he looked back at his first fiery step into writing poetry describing it with these lines:

I didn’t know what to say, my mouth

could not speak,

my eyes could not see

and something ignited in my soul,

fever or unremembered wings

and I went my own way,

deciphering that burning fire

and I wrote the first bare line,

bare, without substance, pure

foolishness,

pure wisdom

of one who knows nothing,

and suddenly I saw

the heavens

unfastened and open.

He was willing to stay with the quiet and listen. He tapped into the power of being still and listening to our intuition, inner selves

He stepped into his poetry not knowing where it would go, with the open mind of a beginner. If we could let ourselves be beginners then we would do so many more things. Instead we fear that we will look foolish in this new endeavor and extrapolate from there that we would look like a fool in totality. So in order to avoid being labeled a loser, we don’t take the first step.

If we can declare ourselves to be a beginner then we give ourselves permission to not know how, to try and see what happens, to give grace to whatever stumbles and mistakes we make along the way. Because we are just beginning. And as Neruda found when he was “writing the first bare line,” we’ll find perhaps pure foolishness and perhaps “the pure wisdom of one who knows nothing.” From the place of an innocent beginner all kinds of new possibilities emerge.

Erich Fromm says that the key to creativity is our capacity to be open, curious, even puzzled. Now we haven’t been rewarded much in our lives for being puzzled. Our schools and our employers generally haven’t encouraged bewilderment. The answers “I don’t know” or “I wonder?” aren’t generally what our teacher or boss is looking for. Yet that’s where the richness lies.

Staying in the uncertainty

As we step into this new space as a beginner, it’s going to feel uncomfortable. We probably won’t know which way to step. We’ll feel like we’ve moved off of our well worn, safe path yet we can’t see which way the new path will lead. We can’t get any traction.

I recently met Mikela and Philip Tarlow, a couple who lead workshops and have written a book called Navigating the Future. One of the keys to creating your future they say is learning to feel the emotions of change. And the richest part of change is this time of unknowing. They advise us that if “we allow ourselves to feel the emptiness, the helplessness, and the loss of identity, we eventually begin to tap into a realm where anything is possible.”

Unfortunately, there’s very little support in our culture for these periods of emptiness. People don’t want to hear “I don’t know.” They want to provide advice about some quick fix to move you out of your confusion and avoid their own discomfort. And often we’re all too eager to take that quick fix and get back on solid ground.

Wouldn’t it be nice if people would say, “Why how lucky you are to be in the midst of uncertainty. What a rich time for you. Don’t even try to figure it out, just stay with it.” These times are rich and uncomfortable. They require sinking into what feels like your greatest weaknesses and letting go of your favorite strengths.

If we let ourselves slip back into the comfort of those strengths, then we lose the chance for real transformative change. If we just keep cycling through repetitive patterns, we become trapped in time, tied to history. It is only by feeling the emotions of change that we can forge a new path through our old habits, into the space of emptiness and uncertainty and come through into the possibility of creating a new future. Entering into the void, feeling it so deeply that sometimes it will be quite painful, is the only way to touch true creativity. The fire of creativity will burn away the past and generate something new and unimagined.

We can create new visions of ourselves and the world. Move from a story that we are a victim of circumstances to a story that we can create opportunities out of whatever comes our way. Move from a story of suspicion about others to a place of compassion for them and their circumstances. We are all creating our world all the time, the important task is to do so consciously. And to recognize that our creative actions have an impact on the world. Each of us has some piece of the puzzle of solving the world’s problems and creating a more just, humane and beautiful world.

Creativity is not a solitary movement. That is its power. Whatever is touched by it, whoever hears it, sees it, senses it, knows it, is fed. That is why visiting a museum and seeing beautiful pieces of art can be so inspiring. That is why listening to a symphony can make us feel connected to something larger.

Julia Cameron says that she has seen “creative contagion” in force in office environments. When one person gets connected and clear, others will notice and ask what they’re doing and soon lots of people are getting in touch with their creativity and transforming the workplace into a scene where the people are more grounded and also more visionary, innovative, and individual.

She provides specific tools, suggesting that you might close your office door and listen to music for 10 minutes. Or take 5 minutes and write half a page to clear your thinking. Or bring flowers to place on your desk to serve as a constant visual reminder. With little actions like these, you can create the space for inspiration or grace. Just making a small opening invites the possibility of creativity.

We have only begun to imagine the fullness of life. Let us all step into the world and express our creative selves as beginners, tapping into that creative genius that came us to easily as children.

To do this we need to recognize and affirm the fear of taking that first step into some totally new idea. We need to create a space in our lives that nurtures new ideas, that acknowledges the time of not knowing, that truly encourages failure as steps on the journey to creation and fulfillment.

May we each create rich and rewarding lives that bring fulfillment and joy to ourselves and to others.


Benediction

From John Murray, Universalist

Go out into the highways and by-ways

Give the people something of your new vision

You may posses a small light,

But uncover it, let it shine,

Use it in order to bring more light and understanding

To the hearts and minds of men and women